Leland Teschler's Editorial: The Engineering “Extremist” Mindset

April 24, 2008
Do engineers have a “mindset” that makes them prone to become Islamic terrorists?

Researchers in the U.K. think so. They analyzed Islamic radicals worldwide who had participated in some kind of terrorist act. Out of 326 individuals they could find, 78 had studied engineering. That’s about nine times greater than you would expect to see if engineers had the same propensity to radicalize as the adult population of the countries they came from.

Authors of the report depict engineers as people who wouldn’t make good company at dinner or a ball game. They claim engineers have thinking styles that are susceptible to violent radical arguments. Specifically, engineers are said to have a “mechanistic view of the ideal society,” and feel they know the “one best way of improving society.”

The authors go so far as to suggest that traits connected with autism “underpin the political and religious dispositions of the ‘engineering mind-set.’” If you believe that, then engineers exhibit “fear of uncertainty and change, impaired social interaction, lack of empathy, and obsession with orderly patterns.”

But are engineers really such mush-minded cretins? Perhaps the people in the best position to comment on these characterizations are engineers who are Muslim. Not surprisingly, those I’ve spoken to who’ve read the report don’t think much of its conclusions.

“The authors have picked up on a correlation but they may have missed the causation,” says Sid, a Shiite and mechanical engineer originally from Iran. He takes particular issue with the report’s characterization of engineers as people drawn to simplistic solutions to complex problems. “If this was true, you should find mathematicians and physicists over-represented in extremist groups. Engineering solutions are more about developing a feel for what is going on through years of experience and training.”

Mohammad, an engineering Ph.D. who did his undergrad work in Iran, thinks the report’s conclusions are unfair at best. “In Muslim countries engineering is a prestigious occupation. So engineers on average are smarter than the general population there. They will be overrepresented in many subgroups — the wealthy, foreign travelers, and Disney World visitors. Unfair treatment, double standards, and unconditional support of corrupt Muslim governments turned Muslim peoples against Western countries. That has nothing to do with Islam or engineering.”

And age may be of a predictor of extremism, a possibility the report authors never explore. “You can get a B.S. in engineering by the time you’re 22,” points out Alain, an E.E. from Iran. “A person of this age group can be motivated toward causes much more easily than someone who is older. And there are plenty of examples of engineers who oppose extremists. For example, the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran was educated in engineering and tried to fight Khomeini.”

My own take on the report is that the authors themselves fell into the trap of simplistic conclusions. Sid the M.E. may have had the best handle on the situation.

“Blowing yourself up in a restaurant is never an Islamic teaching,” he says. “It is more the action of a person who has lost hope and sees the world as an ugly place.”

Read the “Engineers of Jihad” report at tinyurl.com/24wqnk.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

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